COMMENTARY | Logic would dictate that the highest-paid athlete in any sport would be the guy who wins the most.
In NASCAR, that tends to be Jimmie Johnson. He's won 5 titles, nearly won another in 2012 but was nipped by Brad Keselowski, and has been the biggest threat to win every week over the past decade or so. But hold the phone, because according to Forbes magazine, the highest paid driver in 2012 -- for the fifth year in a row -- is ... Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Yes, that Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won at Michigan in August 2012 for his first win in four years.
Prior to his Michigan win in 2008, he hadn't won since 2006 at Richmond. Prior to that it was 2005 at Chicago.
To sum that up for you, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won four races in the past eight seasons. To be fair, he's been very consistent in the past couple years and is now a legitimate title contender but for much of the past eight years, he's been somewhat of an also-ran on the track.
So how did he earn so much in 2012?
Forbes estimates $12.9 million came from his salary plus race winnings. But what gave him the whopping total of $25.9 million earned is the $13 million in off-track earnings (merchandise, advertisements, etc.) that he took home. Not a bad chunk of change there.
The lesson of these numbers is that when it comes to NASCAR and making money, it's not really about what you do on the track; it's about your marketability.
Partly due to his name and partly due to his general likability (I like Dale Jr., and most fans I know like him, too -- aside from a few Kyle Busch fans), Dale gets asked to endorse a lot of products. Jimmie may be a better racer, but he's not exactly charming or likable. I wouldn't want him in my commercial, to be honest with you.
The case of Dale Jr.'s marketability over the five years that he's won this Forbes honor is very similar to another NASCAR driver, Danica Patrick. Patrick is shooting her way up this Forbes chart (she earned $12.9 million in 2012) and will no doubt be pretty close to Jr. in future years because she, too, despite lack of on-track success, is very marketable. She's young, well-known and has name recognition. And despite struggling to get good finishes most weeks in her NASCAR racing career, she makes more endorsement revenue every year than most drivers who finish well every week.
That's just a reality of NASCAR -- and I suppose other sports as well. It's the Kardashian age, and who is most photogenic will profit. Perhaps it always was this way.
FYI: This is by no means a knock on Dale Earnhardt Jr. I've followed his career since he was a young man in the Busch Series and have seen him do great things behind the wheel of a stock car (between 2000 and 2004 he won 15 Cup races, and there's no reason he can't get back on that kind of streak in Hendrick equipment).
I don't begrudge Earnhardt for making money because of his name; I'd do the same thing in his position.
Why wouldn't you?
It's just interesting to me that the big money isn't always going to people who are doing the best on track.
Such is life, and now I'm off to figure out how to make myself more marketable.
Matt Myftiu lives in Michigan, has been a walking encyclopedia of NASCAR since immersing himself in the sport over 15 years ago, and has worked as a journalist for two decades. His blog on the sport, NASCAR: Beyond the Track, has been published by The Oakland Press for the past 5 years. Follow him on Twitter @MattMyftiu.